ON THE NIGHT of April 11, 1981, Joe Louis stared blankly as Larry Holmes and the late Trevor Berbick circled each other in the Las Vegas ring. It was the last fight he would ever see; for hours later he would be dead.
However, as I watched the great champion from the past, no more than 20 feet away, I knew he was in another world, that of dementia.
However, Louis wasn't the only one to have suffered from what was once called "punch drunk" syndrome or "dementia pugilistica" or "chronic traumatic brain syndrome."
There have been others, who have seen their great skills diminished or wiped out such as Sugar Ray Robinson's Alzheimer's and even Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's.
If you'll indulge me to reflect on the past, this is his obit from those sad April days of 1981:
"They wheeled out The Champ one last time. Joseph Louis Barrow was placed in a gold casket and flown from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C. His body will "lie in rest" at the 19th Street Baptist Church prior to burial at Arlington National Cemetery on the instructions of Ronald Reagan.
In death, Joe Louis, who was born May 13, 1914, in a cabin near Lafayette, Ala., has gained more respect from the U.S. government than while he lived. Arlington National Cemetery is usually the burial plot for American heroes. Joe Louis was one of them, but his own government didn't treat him that way. His tax bills were larger than the national gross of some European countries.
Of course, Uncle Sam waited until his days as heavyweight champion were nearly over before sending him the bills. An honest man, he tried to keep his head above water by first turning to wrestling and, in later years, he played host and greeter at Caesars Palace in Glitter Gulch.
Joe Louis was one of the few people associated with boxing who remained untainted. For boxing, as a sport, is about as corruptible as the Spanish court circa 1400. There usually is no way to get near it without getting tainted.
The underworld always loved it. It was easier to fix than a World Series, it kept you in touch with the riffraff as well as high society, and it was a perfect place to invest your rum-running profits.
It's been said that boxing is a refuge of drifters, grifters, guys who have done one to 10 for shooting their wives, and just got out of prison in time to kill again. It's not a sport, it's a rabble, according to the great, late Jim Murray,
Of course, The Champ stood above the pettiness of James Norris.
He had seen it all. The bad times, particularly, his own, including strokes, heart attacks and then was confined to a wheelchair and wheeled out on special occasions such as title fights like the one on April 11, 1981 when Larry Holmes scored against Berbick.
As we said at the start of this column, he stared at the ring that right, probably remembering his own career. During the period of 1937 to 1950, he defended his heavy crown 25 times.
In the middle of the Holmes-Berbick fight, I noticed as his entourage wheeled The Champ to one of the exits. Early on April 12, Joe Louis suffered a fatal heart attack in the bathroom of his Las Vegas home.
With seven days, there was a funeral in the same ring where he had watched Holmes and Berbick.
"Let's hear it for The Champ," cried a voice from the ring and the crowd responded.
They had wheeled him out one more time. And now he'll be buried in Arlington. It's unfortunate that the U.S. government hasn't been so considerate while Joseph Louis Barrow was alive."